Point of view

Whit Stillman on adapting Jane Austen and soundtracking The Last Days Of Disco

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Whit Stillman on overcoming drawing a "blank" for ‪The Last Days Of Disco‬: "I was very helped by the fact that a magazine sent me Anthony Haden-Guest's book about Studio 54 to review."
Whit Stillman on overcoming drawing a "blank" for ‪The Last Days Of Disco‬: "I was very helped by the fact that a magazine sent me Anthony Haden-Guest's book about Studio 54 to review."

In the final instalment of my conversation with Whit Stillman we go on a "magical" stroll connecting Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine in George Stevens's A Damsel In Distress to Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody in Whit's Damsels In Distress, Ryan Paris's Dolce Vita, Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Matt Keeslar, Mackenzie Astin, and a Dean Martin song in The Last Days Of Disco.

The director/screenwriter talks about adapting Jane Austen's Lady Susan for Love & Friendship, the possible influence of his children on The Wizard Of Oz costumes turning up in his films, and a Peter Afterman comment about baroque music and Jamaican music that matches for Whit a Procol Harum Whiter Shade Of Pale comparison to its "Bach roots".

Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon with Alicia (Chloë Sevigny) in ‪Love & Friendship‬: "Alicia comes from Jane Austen. But I accept very much Alice as a significant name for me because my favorite people were a Scottish couple ..."
Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon with Alicia (Chloë Sevigny) in ‪Love & Friendship‬: "Alicia comes from Jane Austen. But I accept very much Alice as a significant name for me because my favorite people were a Scottish couple ..."

We start out with the significance of names for Whit, both professionally and personally.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The name Alice is moving through your films.

Whit Stillman: It is?

AKT: Yeah.

WS: Is there another Alice [than the one in The Last Days of Disco]?

AKT: There's the Alice [also played by Chloë Sevigny] in Love & Friendship.

WS: Oh, Alicia! Yes.

AKT: That's a variation on it.

WS: Oh, the Alicia comes … I consider Alicia … This is the difference between sort of a European perspective towards names and an American perspective. And I had to fight this battle when my daughters were born in Barcelona. Because I think in Spain the view is that each name is one name and has different permutations. Because I wanted to get my daughter called Ann.

And they wouldn't let me name her Ann in Spain. She had to be Anna. And so I had to get a letter from the North American Institute in Barcelona that in the United States each name is considered distinct. And Ann is different from Anna.

Whit Stillman on The Wizard Of Oz references in Damsels In Distress and The Last Days Of Disco: "Yes, you're right. Yes. I mean the fact that I had small children watching these films all the time did affect what I put into my films."
Whit Stillman on The Wizard Of Oz references in Damsels In Distress and The Last Days Of Disco: "Yes, you're right. Yes. I mean the fact that I had small children watching these films all the time did affect what I put into my films." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I know it very well.

WS: So Alice and Alicia. Also Alicia comes from Jane Austen. But I accept very much Alice as a significant name for me because my favourite people were a Scottish couple who came to work in my family because we lived on a farm and so there's work for both of them. And it was Alice and Jimmy.

And Alice and Jimmy are sort of the secret romantic couple in the film. So Alice doesn't end up with Jimmy. But Jimmy [Mackenzie Astin] liking Alice [Sevigny] is a bit a motor for a lot of things in this [The Last Days of Disco] story.

AKT: I have another Alice. I mean an Alice around a few corners. In George Stevens's A Damsel in Distress, Joan Fontaine's character is called Lady Alyce.

WS: Lady Alyce, okay, I forgot that. That's not a very good film but it has the most beautiful sequence which is the sequence we used in our film [Damsels in Distress]. Things are Looking Up, the Gershwin song. I just adore what they did.

You know, so much of cinema that ends up being interesting and good is because of a problem, a limitation. I don't think they felt that Joan Fontaine could dance the way Fred Astaire's other partners could dance. So they choreographed it as a lovely stroll while he sang. And that made it really magical.

AKT: I've seen that film once on television, even longer ago than twenty years. But I remember it really well and also A Foggy Day in London Town, which is a stroll dance number in the same film. Fred Astaire walking in the fog, I loved that. The whole film remained with me from one viewing.

Chloë Sevigny as Alice in The Last Days Of Disco railroad apartment
Chloë Sevigny as Alice in The Last Days Of Disco railroad apartment

WS: They do have that scene on YouTube and it's just magical.

AKT: The railroad apartment in The Last Days of Disco is interesting. When I came to New York I remember looking at a railroad apartment on the Upper East Side that looked exactly like that. It seems to me as if I'd been in this particular one that you show in The Last Days of Disco.

WS: Yeah, that's what they had. I remember.

AKT: I didn't take it.

WS: Yeah, no, but I remember. I had a girlfriend who was in that kind of apartment. I think there might have been three of them [as in The Last Days of Disco with Alice, Charlotte, and Tara Subkoff as Holly]. I think there were three of them in it. It's really awkward.

AKT: You know there is no privacy possible.

WS: I'm a great believer in halls and doors.

AKT: Children like in-between places like hallways.

Whit Stillman on Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte's (Kate Beckinsale) living quarters: "I had a girlfriend who was in that kind of apartment."
Whit Stillman on Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte's (Kate Beckinsale) living quarters: "I had a girlfriend who was in that kind of apartment."

WS: They do?

AKT: Because you can take them as yours. Doorsteps, stairs, they are not one place or another.

WS: Well, apparently Jane Austen did a lot of her best writing in essentially a hallway. And there was a squeaky door. And someone wanted to put oil on the squeaky door and she said: "No, no, please don't put oil on that. I need the squeak to let me know people are coming." Because she would do this [he makes a hiding gesture] when people were coming.

In case of Disco, I think probably Alice was going to end up with Jimmy [Mackenzie Astin]. Then the Josh [Matt Keeslar] character sort of came in to make that more interesting. But as far as the club denouement goes, that's something that I really just had a blank.

I was very helped by the fact that a magazine sent me Anthony Haden-Guest's book [The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night] about Studio 54 to review. And he talked about the whole series of events that led to the end of Studio 54.

I didn't want our club to be exactly Studio 54. But we could use sort of an analogous sequence where our club had this problem. Where they attempted to have a cash situation.

Chloë Sevigny at the MoMA premiere of #Horror, directed by Tara Subkoff, who plays Holly in The Last Days Of Disco
Chloë Sevigny at the MoMA premiere of #Horror, directed by Tara Subkoff, who plays Holly in The Last Days Of Disco Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Again the realness of the location of that old theatre works so well.

WS: That was a huge luxury we had and it made no sense ultimately economically. I was sort of pushed into an uncomfortable spot in this film because it was no longer an indie film in its nature - in the sense that it was going to be a Warner Bros. film. And we had to do everything according to sort of Warner Bros. rules. And I thought, well, it has to be really big.

So we had this really big space for the disco to kind of impress people. But actually, big spaces are not very impressive. Unless you do a lot of other stuff. So you have to fill the big space with just tons of people.

And I really think it would have been better as a production point of view, if we had a smaller space, a smaller club and fewer extras. I mean, we were left with something that was a huge extravagance. But it makes the film look pretty special.

AKT: I am thinking of your Wizard of Oz people frequenting the club. They were terrific.

WS: I love that. I love that. And "Book that clown!"

AKT: They're great. The Wizard of Oz is another strand that moves through your films. You have that dog in Damsels In Distress, that looks like the lion? [Whit looks puzzled]. Didn't you dress up a dog like a lion or am I making this up?

Whit Stillman on Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) here with Des (Chris Eigeman): "I think probably Alice was going to end up with Jimmy."
Whit Stillman on Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) here with Des (Chris Eigeman): "I think probably Alice was going to end up with Jimmy."

WS: Yes, you're right. Yes. I mean the fact that I had small children watching these films all the time did affect what I put into my films.

AKT: These are still great references.

WS: You also look for things the whole world knows about. That resonate with people. These big children's films people have seen.

AKT: Songs evoke memories.

WS: That was the thing. I don't think we could do that now. Because in those times [of The Last Days Of Disco], the songs were still promoting the CDs. Licensing music for film wasn't so much a profit centre for the companies. Now they try to make tons of money just from a license. I don't think we could have had so many great songs in the film if it were made now.

AKT: A lovely juxtaposition is the Dean Martin song during the raid. Do you remember how you came up with that idea?

WS: I just loved the song. When they're actually doing the raid, I think for the main raid it's a Euro disco song that's slightly later, like '82. It's Dolce Vita. When the people come in it's Dolce Vita. But I think there is the thugs that might slug Jimmy or hit Jimmy.

Alice and Charlotte with Josh (Matt Keeslar): "Then the Josh character sort of came in to make that more interesting. But as far as the club denouement goes, that's something that I really just had a blank."
Alice and Charlotte with Josh (Matt Keeslar): "Then the Josh character sort of came in to make that more interesting. But as far as the club denouement goes, that's something that I really just had a blank."

AKT: That's when you play Everybody Loves Somebody?

WS: Yeah, that Dean Martin song. What music are people going to play when they clean up the club? They're not going to play the same stuff they were playing all night. Also I became addicted to Jamaican music because we needed some music to have outside the club that was music people liked in the period. So the composer said something that I found interesting. He said "Oh Whit, you like baroque music, you'll like Jamaican music. You should listen to Ska.

I never really realized it how Jamaican music and baroque music had this sort of secret affinity. It's like how people like Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum without thinking too much about its Bach roots. So I started to listen to Jamaican music on his recommendation and loved it. I became obsessed with it and it's been the bane of my existence. Because I wanted to make a film set in Jamaica.

AKT: You have some more 20th anniversary screenings of Disco coming up?

WS: We are doing a screening in London, July 20th. I hope we'll get Kate [Beckinsale] in the London screening. Because it's kind of a Kate/Chloë double feature. Because we're doing Disco on Friday night, the 20th and Love & Friendship on the afternoon of the 21st. A Chloë and Kate double feature weekend.

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman's adaptation of Lady Susan: "Well, apparently Jane Austen did a lot of her best writing in essentially a hallway."
Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman's adaptation of Lady Susan: "Well, apparently Jane Austen did a lot of her best writing in essentially a hallway."

Read what Whit Stillman had to say on his Stanley Kubrick, Barcelona, The Last Days Of Disco, Eyes Wide Shut, and Barry Lyndon connection.

Read what Whit Stillman had to say on props, locations, costumes, Steiff animals, and Lady and the Tramp in The Last Days Of Disco.

The Last Days Of Disco will screen on July 20 at 6:20pm at the Curzon Soho in London. Love & Friendship will be shown on July 21 at 3:00pm as a Kate Beckinsale - Chloë Sevigny double feature. Whit Stillman will participate in a Q&A following The Last Days Of Disco and a conversation after the screening of Love & Friendship.

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